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Sokoni Karanja

Founding director of Chicago’s Center for New Horizons, Sokoni Tacuma Karanja was born Lathan Johnson on January 7, 1940, in Topeka, Kansas. He was raised in the Tennessee Town section of Topeka by his father, Hubert, a worker on the Santa Fe Railroad, and his mother, Florence, a nurse. McKinley Johnson, president of the Topeka NAACP and catalyst of Brown v. the Board of Education, also mentored Karanja. Karanja attended Buchanan Elementary School, Boswell Junior High School and graduated from Topeka High School in 1958. He attended Ft. Scott Junior College, where he starred in track, and he earned his B.A. degree from Topeka’s Washburn University in 1961. He received a masters degree in psychology from the University of Denver, another in social work from Atlanta University, and another in community planning from the University of Cincinnati. He received his Ph.D. degree in urban policy from Brandeis University, where he was assistant dean of students, in 1971.

Studying for his Ph.D. in Tanzania, East Africa, Karanja was influenced by Tanzanian president Dr. Julius K. Nyrere’s value-driven educational and developmental programs. There he received his name, which means “person from the sea who is willing to share knowledge.” As an Adlai Stevenson fellow at the University of Chicago in 1971, Karanja received funding for The Center for New Horizons. The center, which has twenty-two sites and serves over 2000 families, offers many services, including early childhood education, childcare, senior care, employment programs and leadership training.

A national leader on child development issues, Karanja is a task force member of the Council for Accreditation; executive committee co-chair of the Policy Council of the African American Family Commission; and an executive committee member of the Child Welfare League of America. He also serves on the Illinois Governor’s Task Force on Human Services and the boards of Leadership for Quality Education and Voices of Illinois Children. He chairs the Woodstock Institute and is co-chair of the Grand Boulevard Federation. In 1993, Karanja received a MacArthur Fellowship. Karanja is married to professor Ayanna Karanja and is the father of five children.

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Interview Date


Last Name


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Buchanan Elementary School

Boswell Junior High School

Topeka High School

Washburn University

University of Denver

Clark Atlanta University

University of Cincinnati

Brandeis University

First Name


Birth City, State, Country




Favorite Season

Spring, Summer



Favorite Vacation Destination

Mombasa, Kenya

Favorite Quote

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.? - Nelson Mandela

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Interview Description
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Speakers Bureau Region City




Favorite Food

Turkey, Pie (Pecan)

Short Description

Community development chief executive Sokoni Karanja (1940 - ) was the founder of Centers for New Horizons, Inc., a value-driven Afrocentric community center. The center, which has twenty-two sites and serves over 2000 families, offers many services, including early childhood education, childcare, senior care, employment programs and leadership training. Karanja received the MacArthur "genius" Fellowship in 1993.


Brandeis University

Centers for New Horizons

Favorite Color

Red, Yellow

Timing Pairs

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Sokoni Karanja explains his name

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Slating of Sokoni Karanja interview

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Sokoni Karanja's favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Sokoni Karanja describes his mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Sokoni Karanja describes his father's background

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Sokoni Karanja remembers meeting McKinley Burnett from his early church participation

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Sokoni Karanja continues to discuss the contributions of McKinley Burnett

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Sokoni Karanja discusses J. A. Rogers's published works

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Sokoni Karanja shares an early memory of his brother

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Sokoni Karanja shares memories from his youth

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Sokoni Karanja recalls his school life in Kansas

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Sokoni Karanja remembers the plaintiffs of Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Sokoni Karanja recalls his early life in Topeka, Kansas

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Sokoni Karanja recalls his high school experience

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Sokoni Karanja recalls his undergraduate years

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Sokoni Karanja discusses his various advanced degrees

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Sokoni Karanja remembers activism in Atlanta, Georgia in the 1960s

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Sokoni Karanja reflects on the influence of the Nation of Islam in the 1960s

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Sokoni Karanja recalls his 1966 arrest in Cincinnati, Ohio

Tape: 3 Story: 9 - Sokoni Karanja explains his graduate-level pursuits

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Sokoni Karanja recalls his tenure as Assistant Dean of Students, Brandeis University, 1960s

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Sokoni Karanja discusses his organizing skills

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Sokoni Karanja details time in Tanzania researching President Julius Nyerere

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Sokoni Karanja remembers the National Memorial African Bookstore and the Black Power Conferences of the late 1960s

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Sokoni Karanja discusses cultural activist Maulana Karenga

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Sokoni Karanja discusses the founding and success of Centers for New Horizons in Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Sokoni Karanja discusses his MacArthur Foundation Fellowship

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Sokoni Karanja details his experiences with police harassment

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Sokoni Karanja details his future plans for Centers for New Horizons

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Sokoni Karanja calls for self-sufficient black communities

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Sokoni Karanja reflects on his career as an organizer

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - Sokoni Karanja discusses his family

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - Sokoni Karanja considers his legacy







Sokoni Karanja discusses his organizing skills
Sokoni Karanja remembers the National Memorial African Bookstore and the Black Power Conferences of the late 1960s
You were describing, you're talking organizer talk. You're talking about one on ones with people and--.$$Right. Right.$$And so did you have an organizer's training somewhere along the way?$$Yes. I, I--when I did my stint at AU [Atlanta University, now Clark-Atlanta University], I was, I read a lot of the [Saul] Alinsky stuff and I also got my master's degree and specialized in community organization so I knew how to organize and had done a lot of organizing there in Atlanta with young people and getting them involved in rite of passage programs and that kind of thing. And I knew, and, and so I knew what to do but I didn't want to do it because I didn't think it was my role there in that building [Ford Hall at Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts]. But because they had taken over the building and you know I, I'd watched them do it. I was, you know I had an office there in the building. I saw them when they took over the switchboard and all that you know and I didn't try to stop them. But I didn't want to lead it, I--you know but I realized that if I didn't they would hurt themselves in ways you know cause there were some--a lot of those guys are big time lawyers in, in Boston you know and have you know very prominent positions and lawyers, doctors, what have you, you know, they, they've done very well for themselves yeah.$$It was like a moment when you had to kind of make a decision based on conscience--.$$Right.$$--in terms of what you ought to do.$$Yeah, and logic, you know.$January or February of 1971, I remember getting off the plane in New York City without a coat and, you know, I'd come from this very warm environment into the area I was coming back to, New York and it was February you know so it was cold, you know. So, and the first thing I did, I had to go buy a coat you know so, and I bought a, a coat there at, in, in New York there. So went Micheaux's bookstore [National Memorial African Bookstore, New York, New York] , yeah.$$Okay. Yeah Micheaux's bookstore now that's a landmark stop.$$Yeah. It's not there anymore but it's totally--I loved, I loved that bookstore. It was, it was more than just a bookstore it was a whole story about our culture and this, this guy who ran it was--first of all he, he, he's one--I think either he or his father actually had been the one that developed a lot of the early black movements you know. So, so he had a lot of those there in the store and he would share those.$$Now Oscar Micheaux was a movie so they were related--Oscar was?$$I, I, I assume so.$$Lewis ran the book, Lewis Micheaux ran the bookstore and I also heard that there's a Bishop Lightfoot Micheaux in New York that was related too that John Jackson used to talk about.$$Okay.$$I'm not sure what all the relationships are.$$I don't know what the relationships were but they had everything in that bookstore, everything you can imagine about the culture, all the J. A. Rogers books, every black book that ever been published was there. I, I tried to buy them, everything I could you know while I was there and I went back to New York many, many times. That was, in those days we were having the black power conferences and all that kind of stuff so you know every time I got a chance I would go to those places and gather them. And Maulana Karenga was holding forth you know--.$$Did you attend the Black Power Conference I mean any?$$All of them. I attended all of them that I knew about yeah, yeah visited all of them. There were like two or three that I recall happening yeah.$$That must have been some experience because, especially because Maulana Karenga taking the leadership of some of those or co-convening them with others.$$Right. Right and then there was--.$$And all the Kiswahili involved in those too with you just coming back from Tanzania.$$Right, right, yeah. But Maulana and Jake [Jacob] Carruthers and what's his name, LeRoi Jones--.$$[Amiri] Baraka.$$Baraka, all-there seemed to be conflict, constant conflict between all of those, Jake, Baraka and, and Maulana. They--Maulana did some things that they really questioned and they felt like he was being paid by the U.S. government. Maulana, I first met Maulana at Brandeis University [Waltham, Massachusetts] because he used to come there cause they were doing some kind of--Segal or Spiegel or somebody was doing some kind of violent student there at Brandeis and so Maulana used to come there.